Guide to going organic in vineyards & wine production - Fruit & Vine

Guide to going organic in vineyards & wine production

Well-known and respected throughout the British world of viticulture, the wine division at Plumpton College has put together a comprehensive guide summarising what growers need to take into account when going organic, in both viticulture and wine production.

Many things are easy according to armchair experts. They’ll tell you all you have to do to improve your marathon time is to run the 26.2 miles faster than last time. They’ll also tell you that all you have to do to convert your vineyard to organics is to stop spraying chemicals. Do that one simple thing, they say, and you’ll grow better grapes and thus make better wine. They may concede that some extra work is required, but that’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make.

Some UK vine growers thinking of going organic may be delighted to hear that it’s so “simple.” Others at the end of an exhausting conventional season may be daunted by the prospect of any extra work. Growing thin-skinned fruit that’s susceptible to diseases in a marginal climate is challenging at the best of times. Giving up some of the key tools at their disposal to become organic may seem much like loading a very heavy straw onto a camel’s back.

However, armchair experts do have a point when they say that many organic wines are of excellent quality. Whether that’s due to the inherent organoleptic qualities of organic fruit, or due to the grower being required to work harder (and smarter) is a nuanced question. Whichever way it is, consumers are increasingly conscious of what’s inside the products they consume, and the environmental impact of how they are produced. Demand for organic wine continues to rise, and that means higher prices for organic fruit.

In this guide, we’ll explore the steps and considerations involved in going organic in vineyards and wine production in the UK.

Managing pests and disease

UK vineyards face considerably more disease pressure than other, drier, climes. Organic growers face the additional problem of fighting botrytis, powdery mildew and downy mildew without the aid of chemical sprays.

A smart place to start is by planting varieties that require less sprays. Those such as Solaris, Rondo, Regent and other disease-resistant hybrids all thrive in the UK climate.

Another hybrid that sparkling wine producers should keep an eye on is Voltis, which is currently on trial in Champagne. If approved by the authorities, it could become the first hybrid variety authorised for AOC wine.

The good news is that traditional copper and sulphur sprays are permitted in organic viticulture (to certain limits) and so can remain the front-line defence against diseases. Organic growers often use sprays designed to naturally increase plant resistance to disease as strong healthy vines with high chlorophyll content tend to suffer less. One example is seaweed extract sprays such as Maxicrop which some studies suggest also has anti-fungal properties and can even improve a vine’s tolerance to drought and frost.

Another popular spray among the same lines is an organo-silicate spray marketed under the brand Sirius. An additional benefit of stronger, thicker, leaves is an increased ability to resist pest damage from insects like thrips. They seem to work as they’re becoming increasingly popular in conventional as well as organic viticulture.

When it comes to fighting downy mildew, many organic growers complement copper sprays with epsom salts which is said to boost the vine’s natural defences to the disease. For botrytis and powdery mildew, tried-and-tested sulphur treatments remain the most common first choice. Many growers have success with sprays containing a biological control agent. Mostly these are harmless yeasts or bacteria that populate the spaces in the vine’s canopy or fruit so that harmful fungi can’t get a foothold. Examples include Botector (Aureobasidium pullulans) and Serenade (Bacillus subtilis).   

One principal advantage of these treatments is that there’s less risk of the diseases mutating and developing resistance such as with conventional chemical sprays. Spray rotation is still advised, however.

Avoiding the problem

As all of these treatments are preventative rather than curative, the emphasis must be on trying to avoid the pest or disease in the first place.

Canopy control is important everywhere, but even more so for organic growers as an open airy canopy with good air flow can limit the humidity that promotes fungal disease. Equally essential is a comprehensive program of pest and disease monitoring. Each of those take time, effort, and trained staff willing to fill their pockets with oily-spotted leaves to slow the spread of a downy mildew outbreak. Much of the estimated 40% increase in labour costs over conventional viticulture comes from this extra management time.

Chemical insecticides are forbidden, so pest control in organic viticulture has to be inventive. For certain moths like the light brown apple moth, pheromone traps are widely used. For the new and increasingly important pest, spotted wing drosophila, management can be achieved by setting traps containing commercial baits like Dros’attract. Interesting studies are being carried out into the use of sacrificial ‘dead-end host’ plants that provide tempting berries for the flies to lay their larvae in, but which the larvae can’t eat – thus killing that generation.

Long-term commitment

Conventional fertilisers may maximise yields and chemical herbicides may be highly effective at supressing weeds; however, they are short-term fixes and come at the cost of damaging soil fertility, soil structure and soil microbiota. Organic growers adhere to a long-term commitment to improve the overall soil health through manures, mulches, composts, and cover crops. After all, it’s the soil from where the vine gets its nutrients from, so it’s the soil that should be the first concern of the vine grower.

Certification bodies, such as the Soil Association, understand this link very well. Before a vineyard can be certified organic they require that the land be farmed organically for two years. Then there’s an additional year before perennial crops like vines growing there can be certified. They’re there to hold your hand and encourage your transition to organic viticulture.


In conclusion, the armchair expert seems to be right. Transitioning to organic practices in the UK can be done; it’s a long-term commitment, and requires hard work, but it offers numerous benefits – to the vineyard, to the planet, and to the health of vineyard workers.

Official certifications for producing organic wine

According to Soil Association Certification’s producer certification officer, Luke Wellings, the Soil Association (SA) standards put the principles of organic production into practice. These organic standards encompass EU Regulations 834/2007, 889/2008 and 1235/2008. These regulations were the legal basis for the control of organic farming, food processing and organic labelling within the EU until 31st December 2021 and have been retained in the UK for implementation in Great Britain (GB), as set out in The Organic Production and Control (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 (operators based in Northern Ireland (NI) should use our EU standards). The Soil Association has some additional standards to the baseline EU regulations:

Use of sulphites: The GB regulation places limits on the total sulphur dioxide (SO2 ) that can be added to wine based on type (red, white, sparkling and other including fortified and dessert wines). Potassium bisulphite or potassium metabisulphite are the two solid sulphite additives that can be used in addition to SO2. The Soil Association has higher standards for sulphite levels, including much lower total SO2 levels for sparkling wines and restrictions on the quantity of free SO2 to reduce the potential for adverse reactions to Soil Association Organic wine (reference standard 6.9.4).

Use of natural yeasts: This is permitted and encouraged – the Soil Association organic natural winemakers in certification at this moment. If cultured yeast is used, this should be certified organic unless no supply is available.

Additives/processing aids: SA has an exhaustive list in standard 6.9.3 of permitted additives and processing aids, such as diammonium phosphate yeast nutrients and Isinglass. Oak extracts are not permitted; however, oak chips or staves are permitted to introduce oak to wines.

Other stipulations: Standard 6.9 does restrict a few more oenological practices and of course, all ingredients used in the process must be organic – grapes, sugar and more. Processing aids and certain non-agricultural additives can be non-organic by default but all organic wines are at least 95% organic and all agricultural ingredients are organic. This means that GM inputs are banned, less pesticides are used (including no herbicides) and fertility comes from natural sources.

Reference: Soil Association Organic Standards for Great Britain: Food and drink (March 2024)

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